Almost every news segment these days features some variation of the phrase “and social media blew up.” This is usually accompanied by a carefully curated selection of a few of the most outrageous Tweets about any given topic. These segments aren’t meant to inform average Americans of how a representative sample of their peers view a subject; far from it. They’re meant to manufacture outrage among the masses. But why does the media want to create outrage? And what can a brand that largely just wants to avoid controversy and make a profit do when the media’s crosshairs are set on them?
Where There’s News, There’s Outrage
People would be reasonable to assume this problem is unique to the United States, what with the increasing polarization between the two sides of the political aisle. It’s not, though; a quick examination of news from around the world shows that this problem is everywhere. Governments that have a heavier hand over their media outlets use news outlets to stoke hatred and fear — some of the most effective weapons in a politician’s arsenal.
Countries with a free press have a different problem; news outlets competing for clicks and eyeballs need to create increasingly salacious headlines just to get a share of the market. People have a lot of choices when it comes to content and entertainment these days, and many websites will post new content on a daily or even hourly basis. Outlets need to swim or they’ll sink.
Anger Drives Action
Anger happens to be one of the most galvanizing emotions people experience. Consider, for example, that in one study, New York Times articles with headlines that evoked anger were more likely to be clicked than articles that evoked awe, surprise, or even offered practical value. Anger can be a powerful motivational tool, and the news media is well aware of this. They use it to generate massive profits and people everywhere are falling for it.
Creating an outrage is simple with platforms like Twitter, where news outlets will comb through tweets just to find something somewhat outrageous they can report on. There are plenty of stories from ordinary Twitter users who made an innocuous comment that was quickly spun by the media outrage mill into a completely manufactured online fury. It’s scary how quickly these out-of-context “news” stories can propagate, even when the original tweet that started it all wasn’t outrageous in the slightest. Writers just have to use nebulous terms like “people” to talk about the source of the outrage, making it sound like hundreds of thousands of average Americans are up in arms.
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Where to Go From Here
This digital world of fear and rage can be intimidating for the c-suite. Any misstep on social media or in advertising, for example, can lead to an immediate firestorm that’s almost entirely created out of whole cloth. There’s no incentive for the media to not jump on the firestorm bandwagon; they’ll get more clicks and more ad revenue by stoking the flames, not by injecting reason or thoughtful reporting into the debate. This then spawns more coverage by other outlets, which then gives further legitimacy to the outrage that was faked to begin with. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and is based on almost nothing.
Brands caught in the storm can fight back by echoing the truth loudly and often. While the media might not care whether what they’re reporting is true or exaggerated, people will often move quickly from one outrage to the next. This storm will also pass, and it’s important to remember not to sell your soul for the short-term benefit of helping it blow over faster.
Refusing to acknowledge lies or slander and refusing to apologize for doing nothing wrong is an art form that any company’s PR team should master. The outrage depends on misinformation to spread, and it preys on the reader’s inherent biases and knowledge gaps to make them jump to conclusions. Companies need to understand this, as well as the fact that a lot of people are just trolling social media today because they’re bored. The latest outrage gets their blood flowing and gives them something to follow for a few hours or days, then they move on to the next one.
Some of the responsibility is on users as well. If people are sick of being in a state of high dudgeon every day, they can take away some of this power that media outlets have over us all by simply refusing to pay any attention to outrageous content. But until the time we all come to our collective senses and realize that manufactured outrage is just that, we’ll keep hearing about all these fake scandals.